Exercise has always been a huge part of my life. Sometimes it’s been the core of my identity, so that I’ve been ‘the runner’ or ‘the rower’. Exercise – or, rather, sport – has instilled within me a determination, a commitment and a hard-working mentality which I’m not sure I would have gained from anything else. I have been high as a kite on endorphins after winning a race, close to tears as I’ve celebrated with team mates, and euphoric as I’ve crossed the finish line with a new personal best. I have felt invincible, pushing my body and my mind to their absolute limits.
But I also know that I’ve been left with some hangovers from competitive sport. Combined with aspects of my personality and various life experiences, it has resulted in confusion around food, exercise and body image. Over the last few years, I’ve realised that a healthy relationship with exercise has nothing to do with how much exercise I do. Instead, it’s about why I’m doing it and how I view my body in relation to it.
When I was a competitive athlete, I trained five times a week. Each session with my coach was physically and mentally draining, sometimes pushing me to tears, other times leaving me feeling elated. I still remember the dread I would feel on a Monday morning, knowing that after school we would be doing hills, which involved running as fast as we could up a steep, 100 metre hill, then jogging back down without stopping, repeating this up to 18 times. Each week, my friends and I would come up with inventive ways of counting down the reps, trying as hard as we could to make the session go quicker.
Most weekends I had a cross-country race or an 800m on the track, depending on the season. I would feel nervous all week, unable to stop thinking about the physical exhaustion I would feel and the disappointment I would experience if I didn’t do as well as I hoped. In the car on the way to the race, I would be irritable or silent, completely consumed by nerves and adrenaline.
Maybe this doesn’t sound like I had a healthy relationship with running, but I also loved it. It was my social life, it gave me an unparalleled sense of achievement, and it kept my body lean, strong and fit. In the end, I stopped running competitively because the negatives started outweighing the positives. The dread and anxiety was too overwhelming and I realised that I was forcing myself to do something that was making me unhappy.
But I do believe that my relationship with running at this time was generally good. I was doing it for the sport, to be fit and athletic – I wasn’t aware of consciously trying to control my body. I certainly didn’t love my body, but I’d say I was fairly ambivalent. It was just something that needed to be kept strong and healthy so I could perform well.
This was also the case when I rowed at university. At points I was training twice each day, six times a week, pushing myself further than I thought possible. Through most of it, I was happy. The friendships I made were the kind only formed when you see each other at the boathouse or the gym at 6am in the middle of winter, or crying because you’ve given absolutely everything you have. They were the kinds of friends you’d supply with toast and a toothbrush when they hadn’t been home since training the night before, pulling an all-nighter to meet a deadline.
Rowing and the people I met through it were my life. One morning, I got knocked off my bike on the way to training, leaving me only shocked but my front wheel bent in half. Reeling in the middle of the road, all I cared about was getting to rowing because we had Henley the following week. I made the driver who’d hit me give me a lift to the boathouse and I sat waiting on the ramp, relieved that I wasn’t even late. I only burst into tears when my friend arrived and said a simple ‘How are you?’ I would do anything to improve, to succeed. I sacrificed endless nights out and social events, preferring instead to adhere to the ‘drinking ban’ imposed in the run up to a race and make sure I was in bed by 10pm.
My relationship with my body was, again, ambivalent. I was stronger than ever, as fit as I’d ever been, and I respected my body for allowing me to be good at something. I had to fuel it each day to keep my seat in the boat, to stay on top of my game. Because of the muscle and the amount of energy needed to row, my body was heavier than it had ever been before. We were encouraged to eat and eat and eat, so I was always armed with snacks and there was no such thing as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ food. Most of the time, I felt confident enough to wear crop tops and high-waisted jeans on nights out, not caring if my arms looked a little chunky or the size of my thighs was on display. Maybe I wasn’t thin, but I was strong and toned and that’s all that mattered because I was a rower. ‘Big legs’ was the name of the game.
Since giving up competitive sport, I’ve struggled to find the balance. If I’m not training for something, how can I justify fuelling my body, or letting my body exist at a certain weight or size? I always feel the need to control it, either through food, exercise, or both.
I’m slowly learning that this doesn’t have to be the case. My body doesn’t exist to achieve, to perform or to succeed. It’s quite happy to just plod along, enabling me to be creative, to be a caring friend, to put others before myself. True, these things don’t need fuelling to the extent that running or rowing do, but they can’t be maintained without a healthy body. I can also exercise for the enjoyment, for the health benefits, or for the social occasion, rather than to push myself to be the best or to go faster and faster.
Training twice a day was healthy for me at the time because of my mindset. Now, healthy looks a little different.
If I had my time again, I would still run and I would still row. Looking back, the things competitive sport did to my body seem pretty irrelevant. Instead, I remember the emotions, the relationships and the experiences. I remember the joy, the elation, the exhaustion, the pain, the dread, the fear, the friendship, the excitement, the adrenaline and the euphoria. I probably didn’t need a blog post to realise that, but it looks like I’ve written one anyway.